The arcade may not be as thriving and widespread as it once was, but the lack of public places to play pinball hasn't killed the mighty machine just yet. In fact, it's experiencing a second Renaissance.
Giants of the pinball industry like Williams, Bally and Midway fell into financial oblivion, and only one pinball manufacturer, Stern Pinball, was left standing. Then starting in 2011, smaller companies started to emerge, like Jersey Jack Pinball, with its eye-popping, pinball rendition of The Wizard of Oz film, and American Pinball, which turned the legend of escape artist Harry Houdini into a colorful and challenging pinball game.
This year's Texas Pinball Fest, hosted last weekend at the Frisco Hotel and Convention Center, attracted a massive crowd of pinball players who tackled some of their old favorites from private collectors. Then they lined up to try their hand at new machines designed and released in the last year by game makers like Stern, American and many others.
Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast (Stern Pinball)
Back in pinball's first heyday, musicians knew they made it when a company made a pinball machine bearing their likeness and logo on the back glass. Music acts like KISS, The Beatles and Elton John had their own pinball machines that gobbled up millions of quarters on the weekends around the world. Modern pinball makers are bringing back that tradition with machines like Stern's tribute to one of Great Britain's most influential rock groups.
The player starts by choosing one of 12 Iron Maiden songs such as "Aces High," "Number of the Beast" or "Fear of the Dark" that will serve as the soundtrack for their metaphoric march into the monstrous breach. The board has four flippers on the field including two near the bottom, a left flipper just over halfway up the board and a small right flipper just barely hiding underneath one of the three metal ramps. The game has a large selection of scary ways to rack up points and jackpots in this dark fantasy world of skeleton soldiers and undead Egyptian pharaohs, and you'll use all four flippers to angle your shots up alleyways and over ramps.
There are some clever challenges built into the game like the "Pharaoh's Bullseye Target" that sits on the back wall of the cabinet. The only way to hit it when prompted is to propel your ball with the bottom flipper at just the right angle up a short ramp so it launches through the air and smacks into one of the target's three rings for bonus score multipliers.
The art and video scenes are dark, colorful and stunning. The artwork looks like a pop-up version of any Iron Maiden cover. The scenes of brutal war, death and destruction at the bony hands of skeletal evil on the screen feel like you're watching an animated movie based on the band's signature style of hardcore fantasy metal.
Oktoberfest: Pinball on Tap (American Pinball)
American Pinball really started an impressive sprint after going public in 2017 with its first game Houdini: Master of Mystery. It has some detailed and interactive pieces, magnets and technology that can send a ball flying out of other parts of the field and even a reversed, multi-ball mode where the flippers move down instead of up when players press the buttons. Oktoberfest: Pinball on Tap isn't as insane as American Pinball's predecessor, but it's just as fun.
Players move the ball around a German beer village that's right in the middle of a bouncing, beered-up brew fest. There are steins that players can pick up to give them certain scoring or objective achieving advantages. They can send their ball on an amusement ride such as a banking corkscrew chute that sends the ball on a tiny, wild mouse coaster ride. There's also a fun video mode that's a high-definition, German-ized version of the arcade classic Tapper.
Pretty much any mode you play offers a light, fun challenge. It's not as complex as the machine that launched the company, but for players who long for the days when the only challenge in pinball was to hit a bumper, it builds on the basics of pinball with great theming and engaging features.
Deadpool (Stern Pinball)
Games based on Marvel Comic characters are starting to feel like the same beat 'em up and smash 'em down fare with slightly different weaponry based on the character's mutation or choice of arsenal. Marvel's "Merc with a Mouth" was screaming to be made into a pinball game even before the first Ryan Reynolds movie made the morally flexible mercenary a household name. Deadpool is silly, snide and self-aware and the game captures him perfectly; it feels like Stern let the character design his own pinball machine even though we know he doesn't really exist (as far as we know).
The graphics on the screen are styled to look like its running on a Super Nintendo and each ball opens with the fourth wall breaking brawler playing his own pinball machine. The main goal is to help Deadpool, voiced by actor Nolan North who returns to the role from the Marvel animated universe and the 2013 video game, beat down a series of comic villains like Juggernaut, Sabretooth and Mystique and beasts such as a T-Rex and a Megalodon from Deadpool's comic book adventures with weapons, hand-to-hand combat and childish taunts.
Just like the character who knows he's a comic book character, Deadpool interacts and responds to the player in ways that only his pinball machine can. The field is littered with a harrowing collage of Deadpool comic art and interactive props such as a "Lil' Deadpool" bobblehead attached to a bumper and a katana that doubles as a delivery ramp. Deadpool's pinball machine must make Wolverine jealous with man-canine (manine?) rage.
Alice Cooper's Nightmare Castle (Spooky Pinball)
The godfather of horror metal has everything a rock band wishes they could sell at their merch-tent and he should have gotten his own pinball machine long before KISS got one. Spooky Pinball corrected this error of music and gaming history with Cooper's own horror-themed game backed up by his trademark brand of macabre monster metal.
Players must navigate through Cooper's personal castle of creepy horrors from room to room by making special shots on bumpers, buttons and ramps. The machine and the screen images are drawn and inked in the style of a Tales from the Crypt comic. A mix of classic Cooper chart-toppers and original tunes made for the machine pound your eardrums while Cooper's creepy voice taunts you during every round. Some rooms are merely hallways to other locations and others have hideous monsters to fight, offering some fun boss battle modes.
The most impressive part is the moving set pieces on the playing field like the Frankenstein monster that slowly creeps out from behind the back wall and the working guillotine ramp. Green lighting mixes with the dark purples on the main field to add even more ghoulish ambiance for this dark tribute to the pioneer of shock rock.
Cosmic Carnival (Suncoast Pinball)
This machine comes from one of the younger pinball companies based out of Florida. It's their first and it's not technically finished. The ones they had on the floor of the festival looked like unfinished prototypes, but it plays pretty well for a work in progress.
The machine looks like a standard, modern pinball machine with a screen on the back glass, but it plays more like a classic pinball game. The screen didn't have as many interactive or moving images (it's probably in the works) as some of the other machines, but it would just draw attention away from the action on the field. The game has a twin pair of twisting chutes that send the ball back to the main bumpers through two giant, clown-faced tunnels like the balls are riding to Hell on Satan's clown coaster. The bumpers are in the middle of the upper quadrant of the main stage and present an interesting challenge for planning your shots. The artwork is bright and colorful and ranges from cartoonish to dark.
The story or setting hasn't been completely fleshed out in a way the player can follow just yet, but it has some fun multiplayer modes and offers a classic challenge of aiming shots into precise corners for extra points and multipliers. It's about time we had an old-school pinball game mutated with modern technology, and Suncoast's launch title is off to a great start.
The Munsters Pinball (Stern Pinball)
Midway's Addams Family pinball machine based on the Raul Julia film and designed by pinball Pat Lawlor and Larry DeMar is among the most sought-after and popular pinball machines of all time. So it's time that classic TV's other all-American family of horrors got their shot at pinball glory.
Stern delivered a machine for the lovable family of human monster hybrids from 1313 Mockingbird Lane that presents a nice, funny tribute to the charm of the popular sitcom along with some fun twists on pinball play. The field is monochrome just like the original TV series, so it's not as colorful as most machines, but it doesn't draw attention away from the game play or make it harder to see where your ball needs to go to rack up more points.
The most fun feature is "Grandpa's Basement" that's a tiny pinball game within a pinball game complete with two adorable, tiny flippers and a cute, little ball you could just hug until it suffocates to death from your love. The screen features clips from the original show with multiplayer modes and hurry-up challenges based on each of the family members, including the family's fire-breathing pet under the stairs Spot and the clock-dwelling Raven. The game even has its own laugh track.
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The Beatles Pinball (Stern Pinball)
When it comes to band merch, The Beatles are more than covered. Technically, however, they haven't been turned into a pinball machine. And yes, I know you're going to point to Williams' 1967 Beat Time, but that wasn't an official, Apple Corps approved machine.
The machine has nine of the Fab Four's biggest hits to play over the action including "A Hard Day's Night," "Ticket to Ride," "Help" and "Drive My Car." The game also has official video clips of some of the band's most memorable moments, like their fabled first trip to America and the group's historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that kicks off every game. They even hired "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, the DJ who introduced The Beatles for their Shea Stadium show in 1965, to provide more voice-overs for the machine.
Stern's game features an eclectic mix of modern high-tech and classic pinball play. The playing field looks and plays just like a pinball machine would in the 1960s. There aren't any tiny models of the band, ramps that require speed to get over or small video screens offering even more eye candy. It has basic spinners, stand-up targets, bumpers and four flippers, and it's actually nice to play after some of the more complicated machines have beaten you into the ground with their complex rules and steps.
Our only complaint is that it doesn't display any pictures or videos of Yoko laughing at you when your ball goes into the gutter.